Esplanade Theatre, Singapore
October 12 (Amatriain/Vogel) & 13 (Badenes/Moore), 2017
Joy Wang X.Y.
Reading Shakespeare is always a personal experience. Romeo and Juliet is about how tragedy is inevitable, which is a very Grecian idea, but, and this is what I love about Shakespeare’s play, imminently reversible. It is perhaps a tall order- to suggest worth and worthlessness, fate and agency, to act and be acted upon. The ballet isn’t the play. But it does need a little of that clairvoyant transgressiveness. John Cranko’s 1962 version flirts with smaller transgressions.
Its edges, often, are too soft; its iteration of Verona and its life feels neither threatening nor ecstatic. Verona can feel arcane, ornate, lifeless but it has to be lethally lifeless. We need a sense of the awesome weight of atrophying structures; of its ability to cauterise life, to visit violence. On Thursday 12th, it mainly felt staid. Next evening, in individual performances, in particular on the edge of Roman Novitzky’s (Tybalt’s) sword, it sparred with far more menace.
Perhaps at its heart this is a cosmic tale disguised as a chamber piece; a personal drama between two individuals who happen to be named Romeo and Juliet. Cranko gets its intimacy, the small-scaleness, even the myopia. I don’t mean to suggest that the play or the ballet is by any means myopic, far from it, but there is a narrowness of the characters and self-immolating resolve; even more importantly, they act on a narrow plane.
There are certain moments where one is reminded of Lavrovsky’s production: the reliance on gesture, that lift when Juliet cups Romeo’s face. And then there are other moments, parts of Juliet’s soliloquies in Act 3, which clearly presages Macmillan’s ballet. These historical debts, these borrowings to and fro are fascinating.
On opening night, Alicia Amatriain was a dreamy, romantic Juliet next to Friedemann Vogel’s princely Romeo. Romeo does most of the initiating. Vogel’s Romeo feels older. If Juliet hasn’t completely outgrown her nursery, Romeo has outgrown his playground. There is a natural goodness to Amatriain’s Juliet, a radiant childish naivete. She seems equally enthralled by the new dress, by Paris, by Romeo. She loves with equal force. When Juliet bends over Paris’s dead body, Amatriain makes the moment poignantly tender as, fingers trailing, she appears to close his eyes. It brings home the pointlessness of all these deaths; they die because they are absent of hate. Apt then that it is masked clowns who find themselves maneuvering Tybalt’s corpse. In this absurdist, carnivalesque theatre of death, much of life feels like a masquerade itself.
On the second night, Elisa Badenes and David Moore restored Shakespeare’s hierarchy of the sexes. If Badenes’ Juliet makes the wrong choices, they are at least her choices. There is less blushing hesitancy, less neediness; she knows who she wants. She is the action’s brainy nucleus. There is thus in her unravelling a peculiar sort of courage; a symbol of our smallness in the face of structure’s deathless immobility. Because by extension, that smallness is the symbol of our heroism in resisting the seemingly impossible; the David to history’s Goliath.
Moore’s pre-Juliet Romeo has a sweet emptiness and teasing vacancy; the corporeal analogy of Shakespeare’s parodying of Petrarchan form, the ‘cold fires’ and ‘bright smoke’ that Romeo essays; pretty but meaningless. There is a boyish vulnerability, an unsureness that mirror’s Romeo’s imitative language. By the time the two find themselves in Juliet’s bedroom he has acquired decisiveness, agency. Their duets may not always have the same thrilling fluency as Amatriain and Vogel, that artisanal seamlessness, but they too dance with remarkable abandon.
Yet the ballet fails to move the way Romeo and Juliet can, and the way it moves in other versions. There is love, romance, drama but there isn’t quite a universe. Mercutio, Benvolio, characters that are richly drawn feel like mere appendages. They jest and joust but all that lies in between. Wit, cynicism, the various gradations of life that melt away caricatures’ firm boundaries seem castaway in the shadows.